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Root of the problem

Nationally recognized gardening expert Shepherd Ogden thinks farmers, not scientists, should produce food

April 07, 2010|By TIFFANY ARNOLD
  • Shepherd Ogden puts up a trellis for sugar snap peas as he works in the Princess Street Urban Garden in Shepherdstown, W.Va. Ogden is agardening expert and author. He'll speak Thursday night at Shepherd University about the seed industry.
Kelly Hahn Johnson, Staff Photographer

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - Shepherd Ogden wants you to know where your food comes from - down to the seeds.

On Thursday, that's the message he's hoping to convey at Shepherd University during his public lecture, "A Seedy Business: Tales from the International Seed Trade."

The event is the last in the campus's Food Fight Series, highlighting topics addressed by Barbara Kingsolver's book, "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle"

"We have come to understanding the idea that there's a whole chain of production that goes back to the seeds," said Ogden, a nationally recognized gardening expert and author.

Ogden's lecture will address what it's like traveling the world visiting the places where horticulturists produce and test seeds, a sort of a behind-the-curtain look for consumers who wouldn't have the opportunity to see how seeds are produced. The title of Ogden's lecture plays off the title of a Dylan Thomas book, "Adventures in the Skin Trade."

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"It's not so much a coming-of-age story as it is a loss of naivet story, and that's what my talk is," Ogden said.

Ogden, 60, of Bakerton, W.Va., recently chatted about his life's passion and what he says are the major issues facing seed producers and the impact it could have on consumers in the grocery aisle.

"After you've devoted 30 years of your life to something, you either go into Emerson's quiet despair, or you start essentially enjoying this sort of recombinant benefits of all the things you've done over the years," Ogden said.

The problem in seed production, Ogden said, is that many of the resources are in the hands of too few people. Ogden is also concerned about genetically modified foods, such as the Flavr Savr tomatoes produced to address the "cardboard" tomatoes of the 1990s.

The cardboard tomato problem popped up because supermarket tomatoes tasted like the cardboard packages they were shipped in.

Ogden said producers examined the genetics of the tomatoes to find out what was wrong and learned that the flavor development gene was closely bound to the gene that determines the strength of a tomato's inner-cell walls.

Ogden said producers tried to recreate this with the genetically modified Favr Savr tomato.

"They ended up with something that had strong cell walls that could be shipped and it tasted good, but it couldn't resist diseases in the field, so it never made it economical," Ogden said. "It just fell apart."

His concern is that policy, politics and business practices will enable history to repeat itself.

The problem with tomatoes

Aside from the economic issues posed by genetically modified foods, Ogden believes there are a broader set of ethical implications of allowing people to have intellectual property rights on living organisms.

There are also some scientific problems, he said, since organisms evolve.

"Explain to me how you can completely describe something that evolves? An organism is not a machine," Ogden said. "It's not a widget. If you describe that tomato today, tomorrow, it's not that tomato. Two generations down the line, it's a different tomato."

If genetically modified foods and the lack of diversity are part of the problem, a solution, Ogden said, is for consumers to vote with their dollars. He referred to eating locally grown foods as the "antidote."

"The thing about buying locally is that it can happen right away and that will drive (food) diversity," he said.

This is an idea that has traction. He doesn't think it's a fad or latest feel-good trend and pointed to market data.

"I think it's becoming more acceptable to believe we have to impose some limits on our consumption and our lifestyle because we don't want to see them degrade," Ogden said.

To elaborate, he compared our use of natural resources with how a person might chose to spend a $100 check each week.

"If you spend 110 (dollars) a week, it's going to be a while before you start getting a pink slip in the mail saying that you're overdrawn," Ogden said. "And we're a little overdrawn on the natural resources capital, I think."

How he got started

Today, Ogden spends his spare time researching the limitations of the scientific method and transforming his third of an acre into a green farmstead.

"Basically, I'm looking for really low-tech, inexpensive ways to minimize my carbon footprint," Ogden said.

Ogden is originally from Shepherdstown, W.Va. He received degrees from the University of Vermont and the University of Massachusetts and got his start in the growing business in Vermont. Ogden would eventually go on to write five books and found The Cook's Garden, a mail order seed supply and house. He was president of the company from 1983 to 2003, until it was assimilated into the W. Atlee Burpee Co.

His grandfather, Samuel R. Ogden, was a well-known writer whose specialty was horticulture and vegetable growing. But Ogden said that initially, his own interests were in art, engineering and writing. That is, until one day he was tending to some lettuce in a garden in Vermont.

"I heard this 'crack-crack,'" Ogden recalled.

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